For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
June 11, 1997 - 7 Reasons Why Books Will Last
Like public schools before them, public libraries are coming under increasing scrutiny in a time of social change.
One example of this is the most recent issue of "CQ Researcher," entitled "The Future of Libraries." Each issue of the magazine (published by the Congressional Quarterly) tackles some topic with public policy implications.
The overarching concern of the CQ Researcher was technology. The issues asked, Are America's libraries moving too quickly to adopt technology?
Like any good research piece, the conclusion is, "It depends." In some cases, probably so. In others, some libraries aren't moving quickly enough.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I don't have an instant's worry that Internet terminals will drive out printed material, nor that they will make libraries obsolete.
A close analysis of print and electronic resources reveals that each has its strengths and weaknesses, its appropriate uses within a public library. In brief: electronic resources have the edge for periodical, encyclopedic, or other information contained in relatively short documents. Such documents tend to be timely, concern themselves with just one or two topics, and can be searched for and retrieved quickly. That's an important subset of library use. The World Wide Web is a superior tool for this function. Generally speaking, it works better than paper alternatives.
But by far the greater use of almost any public library -- or school library media center -- falls into the category of "sustained reading." Here I mean our staples: children's books, non-fiction, and novels.
There are at least seven reasons why the book, pretty much as we know it today, will endure.
Resolution. The resolution of type on typical computer monitor has just 72 dots per inch. The typical typeset book has 1200 dots per inch. For sustained reading, paper is best.
Linearity. The World Wide Web is based on hypertext -- the ability to jump from one document to another. The "Net" is a mosaic -- you start anywhere and go anywhere and wind up anywhere (or nowhere). But fiction and non-fiction depend upon a sequential argument or story. I would argue that such an orderly presentation is precisely the contribution of the author. It's the difference between a random collection of slides, and a travel book.
Portability. Granted that computers are getting smaller all the time. None is so wondrously cheap and transportable as a paperback.
Accessibility / affordability. No matter how poor you are, you can probably afford a used paperback. A used computer and modem still requires a phone bill and Internet subscription.
Surface technology. Just as the Web needs computer equipment, a roll of microfilm needs a big, boxy, reader machine. A book requires just one working hand and eye, and even those have work-arounds.
Durability. At a recent preservation workshop, various storage media were dropped in a bucket of water. The CD's came out ok. Computer disks and tapes did not. Books -- after suitable treatment -- came out surprisingly well.
Lovability. My daughter has enjoyed computerized books. They're fun and can be useful. But she loves certain books, so much so that we could (and have) read them to her night after night after night. There is a deep power to this artifact, this four letter word, "book."
There is also a reason that most people associate the library with "a place for books." That definition, and the need for such a place, will long endure.
In a book called Future Libraries, authors Michael Gorman and Walt Crawford describe a hierarchy: data is not information, information is not knowledge, and knowledge is not wisdom. The Web is about data. Books are about knowledge.
Wisdom, alas, is still rare in either medium.
In remembrance: Last weekend, my companion for 20 years, Watson the cat, died much as she lived her life, quietly and with little fuss. Her funny little spirit, her wee and unassuming attentiveness, will be sorely missed. Farewell, little friend.